The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In backing Taiwan, the U.S. must strike a hard balance

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), left, meets with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen at the Presidential Office in Taipei on Aug. 26. (Handout/Taiwan's Presidential Office/AFP via Getty Images)

It has been almost a month since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) visited Taiwan, demonstrating solidarity with that self-governing democracy — and infuriating communist China, which claims the island as its own. What some are calling the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis, following those that began in 1954, 1958 and 1995, simmers on. Beijing launched a practice naval blockade of Taiwan. Smaller military exercises continued thereafter, as do visits to Taipei by U.S. lawmakers from both parties, the most recent being Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.).

Clearly, tension between China and its democratic neighbors, including not just Taiwan but also Japan and South Korea, is growing, as is pressure on the one-China policy that has provided a strategic framework for the United States — and kept the peace — since Washington formally recognized Beijing in 1979. New realities, the most important of which are China’s economic and military rise, coupled with the openly aggressive posture of its dictator, Xi Jinping, cry out for adaptation.

President Biden has three times explicitly pledged that the United States would defend Taiwan militarily, though aides insist this represents nothing fundamentally new. The need for more “strategic clarity” along the lines of Mr. Biden’s statements — and less of the one-China policy’s “strategic ambiguity” — is the premise of legislation due for consideration by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Sept. 14. Known as the Taiwan Policy Act and co-sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the committee’s chairman, and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), the bill would be the most significant such enactment since the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, under which the United States has maintained de facto diplomatic relations and arms sales with the island.

In substantive terms, the bill’s key provision is $4.5 billion in military aid for Taiwan and permission to spend the money on “arms conducive to deterring acts of aggression by the People’s Liberation Army” as opposed to the Taiwan Relations Act’s more vague language. Symbolically, the bill breaks more new ground, formalizing the status of “major non-NATO ally” that Taiwan had previously enjoyed informally and rebranding its de facto embassy in Washington as the “Taiwan Representative Office,” a formulation more objectionable to Beijing than the current “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office.”

The bill’s chances to become law in its entirety are iffy, though the least controversial and, substantively, most useful part — stepped-up military aid — could find its way into a later defense policy bill. Also worthy is the Biden administration’s separate initiative, reaffirmed after Ms. Pelosi’s trip, to deepen trade ties with Taiwan. Nevertheless, debate on the bill has raised important questions that must be resolved sooner or later.

On this issue, symbolism is substance, especially to China; the question, as always, is to maximize deterrence for Taiwan while minimizing unnecessary provocation of China. The bill’s authors are right that recent history — especially the Russian invasion of Ukraine — shows appeasement doesn’t work and “provocation” is the aggressor’s all-purpose excuse to lash out. The only thing worse than an avoidable war in Asia, however, would be an avoidable war for which objective observers could hold U.S. policy partly responsible. Those considerations define the balance for which the Senate and the administration must strive.

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